Search This Site:

Regional Governance Impacts Prosperity and Quality of Life

a region's subdivisions as seen from the air

The quality of regional governance is making a big difference in the success of your metropolitan area. People in academic and research circles have come up with this somewhat awkward phrase to describe the quality of metropolitan decision-making, regardless of whether it occurs through the formal or informal structures.

While some areas actually have consolidated their municipalities into one, or merged their principal city and county governments, a broader concept is in play here.  Consolidation is not necessarily what we are considering here.

Metropolitan success lifts your own individual community. Need we say that metro failure really rains on your parade? Even the severe under-performance of a small part of the region means that you aren't enjoying as much prosperity and clout as you deserve.

You might think we're talking up the notion of regional government, and some people become very agitated about "another layer of government."

Whether we define metropolitan success as economic competitiveness, quality of life, or ability to generate an agile and timely response to new challenges, a nimble decision making apparatus sure beats a clunky one.

Where the governments have not actually consolidated into one unit, governance is often a crazy quilt of loose understandings and habits, signed intergovernmental cooperation agreements, governmental districts covering only one particular function, a regional planning commission that works or doesn't work, a council of governments that may be active or dated, and a federally required Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that coordinates any transportation planning and funding in which the federal government is involved. And that's most major roads.

And we think not all of the metropolitan governance is exercised by governments either, just to confuse you further.

We would like to stretch the term to include citizens leagues, powerful non-profit groups such as a United Way, Chambers of Commerce or functional equivalents, and the major foundations, universities, or cultural institutions that contribute to the collective decision making in a metropolitan area.

While usually the people who discuss regional governance refer to actual taxing entities, stretching the term to include these other actors may be valuable to your thought process.

Regional Governance Reflects History and Culture

Often certain elements of the effectiveness of regional governance actually depends on historical accident, strong personalities, and quirks of state law.

So if you think your region doesn't work together when it should, and that fragmented decision making is a problem, don't be too quick to assign blame. Start learning the history of how things became as they are.

In addition to history, whether carefully scripted or accidental, regional governance and the quality of it reflects the culture of the people.

If the city is laid back, the metropolitan area as a whole may be slow to respond to challenges, worry about emerging trends, and take action. If the culture consists of people who are hyperactive all the time, arguing and flamboyance may be manifest in the regional governance structures or realities.

If people are too nice to say what they really think, nothing will get done. If the culture is that people are only in public service because it's an ego trip, you'll be hard pressed to accomplish much.

In New England, the town meeting can be a thing of beauty or more of a nightmare, depending on personalities and the history of important families. And the New England town may be regional or parochial in its outlook, just like suburbs in other metropolitan areas.

For the rest of us, there may be literally no place to work out our differences or to act on our common problems and opportunities.

Or conversely, there may be so many places that the metropolitan area is mostly a cacophony of talking, but little effective action.

How to Forge Effective Regional Alliances

It is a big step to move from being a community or neighborhood leader to a metropolitan leader. If you decide you need to enter that arena to accomplish what's necessary for your own community, be prepared to have your ego trampled, your agenda compromised, your ideas stolen, and your viewpoints misrepresented. Other than that, it is really fun!

Like many things in life, the highest impact changes are the most difficult but also the most worthwhile. If you could pick from only five things to work on in terms of regional governance, try these:

1. Reduce the number of governmental units if it seems feasible at all.  Assure that each remaining government has enough civic spirit and educated citizens to run for office that it has a fighting chance to deliver basic services competently and respond to its residents respectfully.

2. Reduce the concentration of poverty in particular geographic areas. To say it another way, help open and reward avenues for the not-so-poor geographic areas to accept and mentor some lower-income households.   Look for innovative and winning solutions to concentrated poverty

See the community poverty,housing affordability, and mixed-use development pages.

3. Reduce urban sprawl, because by so doing you reduce transportation, environmental, and communication costs, and contribute to understanding across economic, social, and ethnic lines.

The link at the bottom of this page, or the Sprawl button at the left, takes you to the main page about regional factors that overwhelm local communities, including sprawl.

4. Share revenues from real estate and sales taxes so that governments have an equitable distribution of resources for the public sector.

This also reduces senseless competition for shopping centers, often built using tax increment financing or other public subsidy, and big box stores that are built to self-destruct within 10 to 15 years.

5. Encourage innovation and creativity in general in your metropolitan area. You'll need it for the rapid pace of technological and economic change, possibly climate change, and a host of other reasons. Start innovation labs and clubs.

So What Difference Does Thoughtful Government Organization Make?

A 2001 study by Jerry Paytas at Carnegie-Mellon University showed that fragmentation of governments within a metropolitan area reduces the region’s economic competitiveness, and that a centralized state government also depresses the region's economic fortunes. Another study by Arthur C. Nelson and Kathryn A. Foster also supports the theory that a stronger central government is better at producing regional income growth than many smaller ones.

This is interesting, isn't it? Taking this to its logical conclusion, it sounds as though a region must consolidate its governments, at least to some extent, and deal with its own conflicts and struggles internally, if it wants to be as prosperous as possible.

Regional economic competitiveness and personal economics aside, though, it's just much more pleasant to live in a metropolitan area where civic leaders get along, address problems straightforwardly, and deal with challenges rather than sweeping them under the carpet.

Everything from a crime spree to a natural disaster to loss of a major employer is easier to address when the players are comfortable in working together.   We need to become much more adept at regional solutions if we are to minimize negative impacts of climate change, rapid economic shifts over which local governments and citizens have no control, and local impacts of the massive immigration and refugee flows world-wide.

Appropriate for Regional Solutions:

> > Regional Governance

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY NEWSLETTER, which provides you with articles or tips about topics timely for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, rural environments, and our international friends. Unsubscribe at any time of course. Give it a try.